Vouch for this

Now accepting applications: Tennessee’s first-ever school voucher program, for students with disabilities

IEA is the acronym for the Individualized Education Act, the new Tennessee voucher law that takes effect in 2017 and provides students with certain disabilities with public money to pay for private education-related services.

Up to 20,000 Tennessee families can now request funds from the state’s first education voucher program, which opened applications Monday.

The program will allow parents of students with disabilities to receive public money for private services such as home-schooling, private school tuition and tutoring.

While less controversial than more sweeping voucher proposals debated in recent years, the program is set to provide an unprecedented amount of public money to individual households.

“It is important that we ensure our most vulnerable children have access to a quality education that meets their unique needs,” said Sen. Delores Gresham, the Somerville Republican who sponsored the 2014 bill authorizing the program.

Under the law, families with a child with eligible disabilities will receive an average of $6,000 annually in a special savings account. Parents can apply online, and those who qualify will receive the money in January 2017.

The Tennessee Department of Education estimates that around 20,000 students statewide have eligible disabilities, which include autism, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, and intellectual and physical disabilities. There is no cap on the number of students who can participate.

That money comes with a trade-off, though. Families who opt for the funding must waive their  rights granted by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education.

The program is based on similar programs in Florida and Arizona. Upon its passage, the Tennessee bill was lauded by education advocacy organizations such as Tennessee Federation for Children and the Florida-based Foundations for Educational Excellence as giving Tennessee parents unprecedented control over their students’ educations.

“The Tennessee Department of Education strives to ensure that every Tennessee student has access to the tools they need to maximize learning,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release. “We believe this program is a unique opportunity to empower families to make decisions for their individual children as we continue our commitment to supporting all students.”

The program is in some ways similar to a proposed voucher program for low-income students that has stalled in the House of Representatives for several years. That program would allow low-income Tennessee students to apply for approximately $6,000 toward private school expenses.

More information about the Individualized Education Accounts for students with disabilities, including resources for parents, can be found on the Department of Education’s website.

An education U-turn

Carmen Fariña wants to help New York City teachers get better at teaching. But some of her own reforms are getting in the way

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
The math team at P.S. 294 in the Bronx discuss a recent lesson during the 80 minutes of professional development time carved out by the city's most recent contract with the teachers union.

It was a Monday afternoon and school was out at P.S. 294. But there was plenty of learning happening inside the blue-and-yellow building in the Bronx.

Teams of teachers were gathered in classrooms on almost every floor. One group discussed a recent math lesson on how to identify patterns; another analyzed which questions had stumped students during recent statewide tests. A third was thinking about new ways to encourage discussion in the classroom.

In each huddle, they were learning a valuable lesson from each other: how to become better teachers.

What’s happening at P.S. 294 is what Carmen Fariña envisioned when she became chancellor of the country’s largest school system. Among the veteran educator’s most deeply held beliefs is that school improvement starts in the classroom — by helping teachers get better at teaching.

“To me, everything that happens in the classroom is the most crucial thing in the building,” Fariña told Chalkbeat.

Many of Fariña’s reforms reflect that vision, including the city’s contract with the teachers union, which carves out time for professional development each week. But another set of changes Fariña made — overhauling the education department bureaucracy — has sometimes worked at cross purposes, taking power away from those who know schools best.

Strapped superintendents and staffers sidelined in support centers now oversee much of the training teachers encounter. Fariña herself acknowledges it has sometimes been a struggle to meet the diverse needs of schools under the new system.

One Bronx principal said he sees that struggle firsthand.

“What some people call ‘supporting instruction with professional development,’ other people would call ‘bloated bureaucracy,’” the principal told Chalkbeat. “I have no interest in their professional development, and they don’t know my school.”

***

Like much of what has happened at the education department under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the chancellor’s emphasis on teaching the teachers marks a radical shift from the preceding administration.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted great teachers in every classroom, too. But their position was that it was easier to hire top talent than cultivate it. Instead of pouring resources into teacher improvement, they set about measuring teachers to weed out those who were ineffective.

“Joel didn’t believe in professional development at all,” said Eric Nadelstern, who served as deputy chancellor for school support and instruction under Klein. “His question was, ‘Is it easier to change the teacher — or to change the teacher?’” Klein himself did not agree to be interviewed for this story.

When Fariña took the helm, educators took heart that one of them was in charge again. With 50 years of experience in New York City classrooms, she was the first chancellor in more than a decade who didn’t need a waiver, which the state requires when a school leader does not have the experience set by law for the job.

“When de Blasio named Fariña chancellor, it was a message,” said Norm Fruchter, a researcher at New York University who previously served as a de Blasio appointee to the Panel for Educational Policy. “The pendulum was going to shift back towards valuing instruction.”

In one of her first moves as chancellor, Fariña helped hammer out a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, the union that had clashed for years with Bloomberg and Klein. Among its most significant changes: giving teachers 80 minutes after school every Monday to work on improving their craft. The contract also created new leadership positions that gave extra pay to skilled teachers who agreed to take on coaching roles in their schools.

Taken together, those moves helped create a structure for helping teachers improve within their own schools.

“The thing with the most value in schools is time,” said Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor of the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning. “The biggest thing that we’ve done is to honor the fact that learning has to happen by creating time.”

***

In the education world, there is much debate around whether professional learning really works. Plenty of research suggests that typical models do not. Educators have their own disparaging vocabulary to describe those models: drop-and-go, spray-and-pray, even drive-by professional development. The idea is that one-off lectures and workshops are rarely effective in changing teacher practice, let alone improving how much students are learning.

However, recent research suggests there are ways to get it right. A review of 35 different studies, released in June by the Learning Policy Institute, found common themes in professional learning programs that actually improve student performance. Those programs provide coaching, are collaborative and typically happen on the job — much like what’s happening at P.S. 294.

P.S. 294 The Walton Avenue School serves students who are traditionally among the city’s lowest-performing — those who are homeless, learning English, or have disabilities. Yet it outperforms the city average on standardized tests.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Daniel Russo (center) working with the math team at P.S. 294

The school has taken on Algebra for All, a de Blasio initiative that helps schools change the way they teach math. P.S. 294 also has teacher leaders paid to share their knowledge with teams of their colleagues. Those teams then work together in the 80 minutes each week reserved for professional development. All of that comes together under a principal, Daniel Russo, who makes sure teachers get the feedback they need to improve their practice.

“We come back every couple of months and say, ‘How are we doing on this? What fell by the wayside and what are ways that we can do better?’” Russo said. “Everyone is going to contribute to, and benefit from, the greater knowledge that there is in the room.”

For all its ambitions, the 80 minutes don’t always work as planned. In about a dozen interviews with teachers and principals, many school staff said they appreciate that the Monday sessions have provided time and space to think about their practice. But others said that time can feel wasted or forced.

“Everyone is very busy at our school, and that’s just another meeting that has to take place to plan more meetings,” a Bronx high school teacher told Chalkbeat. (The teacher, like many educators interviewed for this story, agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity.)

“A lot of times we’re not really sure what we’re going to do on a given day,” the teacher said. ”It’s not very focused throughout the year.”

***

Why, then, are some schools making good use of the new training time and at others, teachers feel like it’s being frittered away?

One factor: changes to the way principals are supervised and how schools get support.

Under Bloomberg and Klein, principals who needed help turned to dozens of “networks” scattered throughout the city. Principals opted into networks based on their schools’ needs, regardless of where the school or network were located in the city. The network providers were expected to solve problems for schools, or principals could vote with their feet and join different networks.

"That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids."David Baiz, former principal of Global Technology Preparatory

As chancellor, Fariña took a different approach. She promptly rebuilt the department’s Division of Teaching and Learning, which had been dissolved after she left the DOE in 2007. Once again, there was an office at the Department of Education’s central headquarters dedicated to actively helping schools decide what and how to teach.

She also empowered superintendents, calling them the “instructional leaders” of their districts, and upped the years of experience required to land the job. They evaluate principals but are also responsible for making sure schools get the support they need.

In the place of networks, Fariña opened “field support centers,” which serve hundreds of schools but don’t hold supervisory power. Unlike networks, most centers only work with schools located in the same borough. Superintendents and support centers are expected to work together to help schools improve teaching.

Crucially, that doesn’t always happen. The result can work against the 80 minutes, by distancing decision-making about professional development from schools — and complicating it, too.

Our principal is “held with her hands behind her back,” said Corey Taylor, a music teacher at P.S. 33 in the Bronx. “She has to do what she’s being told by her higher-ups.”

Now, principals are expected to ask their superintendents for help, who then turn to field support centers. Some principals and support centers do work directly together, though Weinberg said that’s not the preferred system.

“The ideal thing is that you’re in constant conversation with your superintendent,” he said. “It would be hard for each borough field support center to hear 145 different requests every day, from each of their schools.”

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Teachers at a training for Computer Science for All, a citywide initiative

Relationships between superintendents and support centers don’t always run smoothly, and both are tasked with overseeing many schools. Superintendents have staffs of around six people, yet may be responsible for dozens of schools. Support centers work with up to 323 schools, with an average caseload just below 200.

With superintendents acting as a filter between schools and support centers, many principals report a divide between what they’re offered and what they want to learn.

“There’s a disconnect between the reality of what’s going on in classrooms, and the offerings,” one Manhattan principal told Chalkbeat. “It usually comes down to: Teachers need to learn, very specifically, techniques, tips, philosophies that affect their own practice.”

When they work well, support centers might send staff to a school to provide targeted help requested by its principal. But, faced with heavy caseloads, the centers often respond to schools’ needs by creating borough-wide professional development sessions that can vary in quality. In the city’s most recent survey of principals, only 73 percent said they were satisfied with the support they get from the centers.

One Manhattan teacher said she went to sessions offered by the support center last year and was disappointed with what she found. The presenters led a lesson on “guided reading,” a technique that includes introducing vocabulary and breaking students into groups, but they seemed fuzzy on how to execute the practice in the classroom.

“Teachers were actually correcting them,” the teacher said. “They’re removed and they forget what it’s like to be a teacher.”

***

Despite Fariña’s emphasis on classroom-based learning, many of the support centers’ professional development sessions are happening outside schools, while class is in session. At three separate support centers, almost all the trainings for teachers offered during the month of May were held during school hours.

"We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?"Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union

That wouldn’t have happened under Bloomberg, according to Nadelstern, the former Klein deputy. He said his policy was that teachers and principals should not be pulled away from schools while students are in the building.

“That’s the system-wide idea of support now: taking people away from kids,” said David Baiz, the former principal of Global Technology Preparatory in East Harlem. “That’s not really the best way that adults learn: to sit in a meeting away from the context of their work environment and then try to come back and incorporate it.”

In addition to out-of-office professional development, superintendents host monthly meetings, pulling principals out of their schools for the entire day. In some cases, they include meals paid for by vendors who present professional development sessions based on educational products they’re selling.

“There’s just this feeling among almost every principal that I know,” a Bronx principal told Chalkbeat. “Like meeting after meeting after meeting and requirement after requirement are being added, and really drowning out the time needed for real collaboration.”

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Fariña admitted that professional development run by outside vendors is “not that effective.” She also acknowledged there have been growing pains as the superintendents and field support centers try to meet the needs of all the schools they serve.

“It’s been more of a struggle in some places where there was a more diverse need,” she said.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña looks over a card from students in her office.

To address that, Fariña said the centers have been working on “modules” based on different areas of need. A module may highlight effective strategies for teaching students who are learning English, for instance, and come with a series of professional development courses that can be run over a period of multiple weeks.

“Each principal can adapt it as they see fit,” Fariña said.

***

Weinberg said it is easy, in a system as large as New York City, to point to “random” weak points.

“What our real goal is, is continuous improvement,” he said. “I think that we make mistakes, oftentimes, by looking at one anecdotal example as a way of disproving a larger movement.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the teachers union, said the department needs to pay closer attention to how schools are using the resources that are now available. While the the 80 minutes of professional development time is a game-changer, he said, it can also vary in usefulness depending on school culture, principal leadership and how well superintendents and the field support centers can provide help.

“We’ve set aside the time. We’ve set up the space. Can we just manage it?” Mulgrew said. “The fact that the chancellor made this a priority when she came in is the reason why you see the school system moving forward. My fear is, have we reached a plateau?”

It may be tricky, however, to balance the kind of oversight that Mulgrew envisions with the personalization that teachers and principals say is necessary for effective professional development. But the city is evaluating its own work to make sure it’s hitting the mark for teachers and schools.

“Teaching is really fascinating and difficult work,” Weinberg said. “We need to approach this hard job with the humility that says we have the ability to learn more — and we want to learn more.”

Chalkbeat reporters Monica Disare and Alex Zimmerman contributed to this report.

Share your thoughts on the quality of New York’s professional development for educators in our short survey.  

past deadline

State lawmakers end session without passing mayoral control. Where does that leave us?

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Speaker Carl Heastie on the Assembly floor.

The final day of New York state’s scheduled legislative session has come and gone — but there’s no final deal on mayoral control of city schools.

Lawmakers wrapped up the legislative session late Wednesday, though they could return to address mayoral control of New York City schools at a later date. The provision expires at the end of June, but blowing the session’s deadline takes state officials one step closer to letting the mayor’s governance of the nation’s largest school system lapse.

“This evening, the state legislature will adjourn its 2017 legislative session,” Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said in a statement. “We would have preferred to have tied everything up with a nice neat bow and returned to our districts with nothing at all left on our plate, but under the circumstances, that just wasn’t possible.”

He also suggested that he supports mayoral control of city schools, as long as it comes with help for charter schools. “I support the renewal of mayoral control, as do my Senate Republican colleagues,” Flanagan said.

Meanwhile, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie admitted this outcome wasn’t perfect. “Sometimes in politics you don’t always get what you want,” he said on Wednesday night. He also reportedly said he had “no intention of coming back.”

For the past two years, Mayor Bill de Blasio has secured only one-year extensions of the policy, thanks largely to his fraught relationships with Senate Republicans and Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg received a seven-, then a six-year extension.)

Without mayoral control, New York City schools would revert back to a system with 32 community school boards — something even Mayor Bill de Blasio’s opponents do not support. Yet lawmakers are stuck in a deadlock over whether the extension should come with concessions, such as eliminating New York City’s charter school cap.

Mayoral control has lapsed before, providing a blueprint for what it might look like if it happened again. In July 2009, under Bloomberg, its expiration caused a brief reconstitution of the city’s Board of Education. But it took only a month before lawmakers returned to Albany and passed a multi-year extension.

The relatively small disruption caused by the lapse in 2009 leads some observers to conclude that letting the law expire will bring little harm to schools, teachers or students. That’s a far cry from the “chaos, gridlock, and corruption” predicted by New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

But the first scenario assumes the law will be reinstated as quickly as it was in 2009, said Tim Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association. Every year is different, and this one is marked by “deep-seated” policy and personality conflicts between the mayor and Albany lawmakers, Kremer said. Also, notably, the Senate was in the midst of a leadership crisis when lawmakers failed to renew mayoral control in 2009.

“I think people are taking false comfort in saying ‘Listen, we blew through the deadline last time and nothing happened; we can do that again,’” Kremer said. “They really are playing a little bit with fire.”

So what exactly would it look like if mayoral control lapsed? Chalkbeat spelled that out in a step-by-step guide back in 2009, informed in part by a memo sent by Bloomberg’s staff outlining how they saw the transition at the time.

First, city officials would have to reconvene a citywide Board of Education with five appointments made by borough presidents and two by the mayor. That board would have the power to select a chancellor. The city followed that script in 2009, which resulted in a unanimous vote to retain Joel Klein as chancellor.

Some observers, like David Bloomfield, a professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, feel confident the same would happen this time around.

“I fully expect that to go without any problem and that they will proceed to appoint Carmen [Fariña],” Bloomfield said.

To test his theory, Chalkbeat reached out to all five borough presidents earlier on Wednesday. Officials from three offices responded. The Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s director of communications said she is committed to keeping Carmen Fariña as chancellor. Officials from Borough President Eric Adams’s office said he was focused on renewing mayoral control. Officials from Queens Borough President Melinda Katz’s office did not commit to keeping the chancellor.

“The only commitment Borough President Katz will make at this time is to appoint a representative to the reconstituted Board of Education,” officials wrote in an email.

If mayoral control lapsed for more than a month, New York City would head into uncharted territory. At some point, the city is required to revive the community school boards, but those elections wouldn’t be held until spring 2018.

That leaves months of limbo. In 2009, there was some discussion of whether the chancellor could appoint trustees to community school boards in the interim. But a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said he interprets the law to mean there would be no community school boards until the following May. That means no community input, no ability to appoint a permanent superintendent, and likely no rezoning votes, she said.

Even though there’s only a slim chance this fight will last until May, de Blasio said he doesn’t want to take any chances.

“When you open up Pandora’s box,” the mayor said at a press conference Wednesday, “you don’t know what happens next.”